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Immigrant kids, family translators

Hillary Wicai Sep 25, 2006

Immigrant kids, family translators

Hillary Wicai Sep 25, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Ten million school-age children in the U.S., or about one in five, speak a language other than English at home. Many of these kids are also the family’s translator. This can mean a lot of responsibility, especially if the family owns a business. From the Work and Family Desk, Hillary Wicai reports.

HILLARY WICAI: 13-year-old Erica Ramos spends most of her free time at her family’s busy food market in Washington, D.C.

ERICA:“It gets difficult because my parents, they’re not very fluent in English so I need to be here to translate or I have to here to be a cashier.”

Immigrant families are more likely to start a business. It’s risky. Over a third will fail. That means all hands are needed.

A soon-to-be-published study from UCLA confirms immigrant kids spend a lot more time than other children helping out their families every day. Sometimes they do a lot more than just help.

WALTER MARTINEZ:“They are in charge, yes, of course they are in charge.

Walter Martinez regularly shops in this neighborhood full of immigrant owned stores. He notices how much responsibility the kids in the area have.

MARTINEZ:“Anyplace you go here you see all the kids working.”

Erica’s been working since she was 9. None of the other girls on her junior varsity soccer team work yet. They can’t understand why she had to miss practice to fill in at the store while her mom was away.

ERICA:“I had to tell my coach I couldn’t be there for a week. And my coach was like kind of doubtful I wanted to be in the team. My friends, they sometimes get aggravated because I can’t go to their parties. I tell them I can’t because I own a store and sometimes I get like really sad.”

LISA SUN HEE PARK:“For some, they do grow up too fast.

Lisa Sun Hee Park waited tables in her parents’ restaurant when she was a kid. She recently spent hundreds of hours interviewing immigrant children and has written a book.

She says that kids, as translators, often deal with high-stress situations like when the landlord is hiking the rent, when customers are unhappy, when machinery needs repairs. She says lack of sleep is also an issue.

PARK:“There’s a level of exhaustion that I find a little surprising in these younger children especially.”

But there are advantages. Kids may not have much time to be kids, but a study out of Yale shows students who worked in their family business are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs.

Park says one boy she interviewed was writing legal contracts by the time he was 14. Andrew Fuligni at UCLA also studies immigrants.

ANDREW FULIGNI:“Working at a Burger King after school is not necessarily the same kind of thing as working in your parents’ restaurant where you know you are helping out and there is a larger purpose to what you’re doing.”

In fact, Erica says she works hard in school and at the store so she can give back to her parents.

ERICA:“I told my parents that when they want to retire and I have my good job, that they can go to Florida and I will send them money every single month.”

This 13-year-old just wishes she could play a little more soccer and sleep a little more on the weekends.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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